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There are a lot of different systems for filling pens (particularly among older pens, when makers were technologically more adventurous). In order to get the most out of your pen, you'll need to know the basics (as well as some undocumented tricks) for filling them. Here, I've prepared instructions that should cover about 95% or more of the pens you'll run into in the field. If you're unsure as to which instructions to use, try browsing the site to find pens of similar design.
Almost as important as knowing how to fill the pen is knowing how to clean it. Most pen performance problems can be cured by a good cleaning, and you'll also want to clean the pen before changing the color of ink you use. And so, I've also included instructions for cleaning each type of pen.
There's one filling tip that applies to just about all of the systems listed below: after operating the filler, be sure to leave the point in the ink bottle and wait for a count of ten or so. This gives the pen a chance to fully relieve the internal vacuum and draw in the most ink possible.
If your pen doesn't seem to have any visible means of filling, but it can be disassembled to reveal a big empty barrel with no holes (or sacs, springs, etc.), you may have what is known to collectors as an eyedropper pen.
The earliest fountain pens were simply sealed vials with a point and feed at one end. These, as well as the later Safety Pens, were filled with an eyedropper that was usually supplied with the pen. If your eyedropper is missing (as is usually the case), you can simply use a standard eyedropper (glass or plastic) from your local drugstore, or buy a syringe or pipette from Ink Palette or Pendemonium. Whatever you use, remember to clean it out after use so that ink doesn't dry inside it (or leak from it).
To fill your eyedropper pen, simply remove the section (holding it point up so as not to spill any remaining ink). You may empty any remaining ink from the pen and rinse it out quickly a couple of times under cool tap water (don't soak these pens, as they are invariably made of hard rubber or some other material that will swell or discolor). Then, simply use an eyedropper to transfer ink from a bottle into the barrel. Replace the section, making sure it fits tightly. If your section has become loose with age and wear, it will probably leak; sometimes you can refurbish them by rubbing dry bath soap on the threads.
To fill a safety pen, remove its cap (holding the pen point-up). As with the eyedropper pen, you may empty out any remaining ink and rinse out the pen under cool tap water. Then, transfer ink into the barrel using an eyedropper and replace the cap (or extend the point if you mean to start writing right away).
As I noted above, you can simply rinse out your eyedropper and safety pens under cool tap water. If you like, you can fill them about half full with water, close them up, and then shake them to get at more of the dried-up ink.
Eyedroppers and safeties are almost always very old and rather delicate creatures; do not use solvents in cleaning them, and do not soak them (the hard rubber can become permanently disclolored after extended exposure to water).
The vast majority of fountain pens made before 1950 or so are 'sac fillers' that kept their ink in soft latex rubber sacs (sometimes called 'bladders') inside the barrel. These pens used various kinds of devices to deflate the sac; you then held the point in the ink and released the lever (or button, or crescent, etc.) to allow the sac to reinflate and draw in ink.
Sac fillers offer the best balance of ease, convenience, and effectiveness, which is probably why they predominated during the classic fountain pen years.
Here's how to spot the common types of sac fillers:
Here are specific instructions for the three most numerous types of sac fillers:
Lever filler: hold the pen over a sink or a paper towel and carefully lift the lever away from the pen to a 90-degree angle (or as far as it will go without forcing); this will expel any ink remaining in the pen. Put the point down in an ink bottle until it is fully immersed. Then, flick the lever back to the down position (or release it if it is under spring tension), wait for a count of ten or so; remove the pen from the inkwell and wipe it down. The "flick" here is important, since if you slowly release the lever the pen may not fill as effectively.
Button filler: remove the blind cap to expose the button. Grasp the pen in your hand, point down. With your thumb, press and hold the button to expel any remaining ink, then immerse the point in the inkwell (as with the lever filler) and slip your thumb sideways off the button (to allow it to snap briskly back into position). Wait for a ten count. Remove the pen from the ink and wipe it down.
Crescent filler: turn the locking ring so that its slit is lined up with the crescent (i.e., the crescent is unlocked). Press the crescent into the barrel to expel any remaining ink. Immerse the point in ink, then release the crescent. Wait for a ten count. Remove the pen from the ink and wipe it down. Turn the locking ring so that the crescent is locked away from the barrel.
The easiest way to clean a sac filler is to repeatedly fill it with cool clear tap water, then empty it. It's a good idea to wait a few seconds before emptying each rinse; this will allow more ink to be dissolved in the rinse water. Continue filling and emptying until the ejected rinse water runs reasonably clear (a slight tint is OK, and should not interfere with your new ink color for more than a few lines of writing). By the way, don't get too carried away flipping around those fragile levers; you can bend them or loosen a bit of plastic from the pen if you use too much force.
If your pen has a blind cap that twists through a few revolutions and stops, you may have a piston filler. If the pen has a transparent or translucent barrel, you will be able to see the piston go up and down. Many German pens (such as Pelikans and Montblancs) use the piston filler system; the instructions here also apply to piston-type cartridge converters used today in most cartridge pens. Piston fillers are easy to fill, and usually hold a great deal of ink. They can be rather tedious to clean out unless you are able to make a shortcut I describe below.
If you find these directions to be counter-intuitive, keep in mind that most piston pen gears work "in reverse;" that is, when you screw the knob up and away from the barrel, the piston goes down (toward the point), while when you screw the knob back down, the piston travels up (toward the back of the pen).
To fill the piston filler, simply twist the piston knob up and away from the barrel; this will move the piston down and expel any ink remaining in the pen. Immerse the point into the ink, and then crank the piston back down to the full-up position. Remove the point from the ink; while still holding it over the inkwell, twist the piston back down just a bit, enough to allow three drops of ink to escape from the point. Then, retighten the piston and wipe the pen down. The "three drops" business is recommended by nearly all piston-pen manufacturers, although some pen users get by just fine without it. I suspect that releasing some ink through the feed may relieve the remaining vacuum and release any air bubbles caught in the feed, which will make the pen flow more smoothly.
Most piston fillers do not have removable points. This means that the only effective way to clean them is to repeatedly fill and empty them. This can be tedious, since you can rinse a sac pen four or five times in the time it takes you to rinse the piston pen once, and you can't work up as much pressure in a piston pen as you can in a sac pen.
If you own a late-model Pelikan piston filler (made after, say, 1980), it may have a point that can be unscrewed from the pen. The fronts of the sections of certain later OMAS pens (such as the Ogive and Milord) can also be unscrewed. This will permit you to rinse both the reservoir and the point and feed thoroughly under cool tap water (this is not something you need to do, or should do, all the time: just when you want to change ink colors or when you suspect a performance problem). To unscrew the point, grasp it in a soft cloth or tissue between your thumb and the side of your crooked index finger and gently twist. If you can't get the point unscrewed with finger pressure, you should leave it alone.
Plunger fillers include many older Onotos, Sheaffer Vac-Fil pens from the 1930s and 40s, and a handful of modern pens from Visconti and others. You can recognize these by the long, slender rod that comes out of the pen when you unscrew and pull on the blind cap. If the pen's barrel is translucent, you can see the plunger move up and down.
To fill a plunger pen (assuming it's mostly empty), unscrew the blind cap so that it is free of the barrel, then gently pull the plunger rod away from the pen. With the plunger rod all the way out, immerse the point in an inkwell, then press the plunger rod smartly straight back into the pen. The pen will expel ink during this downstroke, and draw in new ink at the very end of the downstroke (when a vacuum is broken behind the plunger). Wait for a ten count, then remove the pen and wipe it down. Screw the blind cap back down to the barrel.
The trick in filling a plunger pen is to make your downstroke as fast as possible (without, of course, bending or breaking the plunger rod). This will develop the greatest possible vacuum behind the plunger, resulting in a more efficient fill.
To clean a plunger pen, repeatedly fill it with cool tap water and empty it. Thanks to the high pressure of the plunger, you should be able to get the pen completely clean in just a few rinses. Be sure to read the note just above and treat the pen carefully when it is full of water.
Although the mechanical principles are different, filling the Sheaffer Snorkel and Touchdown pens is much like filling a plunger pen; both types expel old ink during the downstroke, and take in new ink at the end of the downstroke. You probably have a touchdown filler if unscrewing and pulling out the blind cap reveals a shiny metal tube or sheath (nearly as fat as the barrel itself); if a little round pipe came out the front as you were unscrewing, you have a snorkel pen.
To fill a snorkel pen, carefully unscrew the blind cap so that the snorkel is extended (it usually moves out around 3/4" or 20mm, just past the end of the point). If your snorkel is a bit sticky, it may help to press down on the blind cap as you unscrew it (like you have to do with some "childproof" medicine bottles). When the blind cap is free of the barrel, pull it all the way out (exposing a metal sheath). Then, immerse the tip of the snorkel into the inkwell (you need not immerse the entire point), and press the blind cap smartly back into the barrel. Wait for a ten count, remove the pen from the inkwell, and retighten the blind cap (retracting the snorkel). If you do it right, you won't need to wipe up the snorkel (which will retain only a small amount of loose ink).
The touchdown filler is simply a snorkel pen without the snorkel. To fill it, unscrew the blind cap and pull it all the way back; then, immerse the entire point in the inkwell and press the blind cap smartly back in. Wait for a ten count, then remove and wipe down the point.
As with the plunger filler, a faster downstroke is better when filling touchdowns and snorkels. A fast stroke builds up a greater pressure surge within the pen, which will more effectively deflate the sac inside.
Touchdowns and snorkels are notorious for seeming to fill even when they have air leaks or petrified sacs; to make sure your pen can fill, try filling it with water and then emptying it (by operating the filler again); you should see a pretty good shpritz of water come out of the point or snorkel when you do this. Another trick to try (with a pen known to be empty, please!) is to put the point near your ear as you operate the filler; you should hear a little "pfft" sound as the filler hits bottom. If the pen doesn't seem to hold any ink or doesn't have an air seal, you may need to have a new o-ring or a new sac fitted.
By the way, Snorkel pens make excellent water-pistols; they can, when in good shape, squirt a stream of water over a meter long. If your Snorkel doesn't have anywhere this kind of range, it may need refurbishment.
To clean snorkels and touchdowns, repeatedly fill them with cool tap water and empty them; they should run clear after a few rinses.
Although at least one other maker (Waterman) developed a capillary fill pen, the only one with which I have any experience is the Parker 61. So, here are the instructions for filling and cleaning a 61:
Remove the cap and unscrew the barrel. Place the filler point-up in the inkwell. Wait for a bit (longer is better, say at least 30 seconds), then remove the pen from the inkwell. The Teflon filler should shed all liquid ink, but you can wipe it with a tissue or soft cloth if you need to. Replace the barrel and cap.
Filling the 61 is a breeze, but you pay for your pleasure when you have to clean it. Cleaning 61s is a chore, which is probably why the capillary system failed to catch on. You should resign yourself to the fact that it may take several days to get your pen fully cleaned out.
Start by removing the cap and barrel, and dunking the rest of the pen into a glass of cool tap water. Change the water every few hours or so until it is no longer heavily colored after a good soak.
Once most of the ink has been dissolved away, you must then remove the remaining rinse water from the pen (otherwise it won't fill). The best way I know of to do this is to get a length (a meter or so) of soft, clear plastic tubing that will fit over the end of the filler; try the plumbing department of your local hardware store. Attach one end of this tubing to the end of the filler, and put the other end in your mouth. Let the tubing dangle down in a loop or "U" shape to make a trap for the fluid you remove. Then, repeatedly suck on the tube to draw fluid out of the filler. Keep doing this until you can't get much more out of the pen, or until the neighbors catch you.
Another good way to empty 61s (as well as 51s) is to hold the pen between your fingers (at the back of the filler for 61s, or at the back of the pen for 51s) and flick it like you would a fever thermometer. Do this outdoors or over the bathtub so that you don't splatter the surroundings.
Cartridge fillers are the easiest pens to clean and fill, which is one reason why they are now so popular.
First, make sure you have the correct cartridges: you should look for cartridges sold by the company that made your pen since these will be the most likely fit (unless your pen is very old and uses an obsolete cartridge type, like early Waterman C/Fs.). If you cannot find such cartridges, you can try to use standard International cartridges (they are readily available and don't cost much, so if they don't work you aren't out much money). If these don't work, you can simply refill any empty cartridges you've saved using a soft-pointed irrigation syringe or pipette (get one from your dentist the next time you get a root canal, or check with Ink Palette or Pendemonium).
To refill a cartridge pen, remove the cap and barrel, then pull out the spent cartridge. Replace it with a fresh one. Make sure you insert the correct end of the cartridge into the pen; some cartridges (like Sheaffer's) don't have a preferred end, but most (like International cartridges) do. Press the cartridge into the section until you feel a little bump, signifying that the cartridge has been pierced. If the pen is dry, the ink won't make its way to the point right away; you can shake the pen a bit, or give the cartridge a slight pinch, to get the ink down into the feed and onto the nibs.
If you prefer to use a converter with your cartridge pen, simply leave the converter in place on the section and follow the instructions appropriate to the type of converter (either piston fill or aerometric).
Cleaning up a cartridge pen is a snap. Simply remove the cap and barrel and pull out the old cartridge (you might consider saving one or two empties if you have a pen of an unusual type, so that you can refill them in case the supply of new cartridges dries up later on). Then, run the section and point under cool tap water until the water runs clear. For more thorough cleaning, obtain an otic (ear) syringe from your local drug store; fill it with cool tap water and put its snout over the pierce tube inside the section (it's the nipple onto which the cartridge fits). Then, gently drip the water through the section, pausing periodically to allow more ink to be dissolved. You should have the assembly clean in short order.
Most piston-type cartridge converters are easily cleaned; you can, if you are obsessive, tear many of them down to parts and clean them individually, but be careful not to lose any of the parts down the drain. Otherwise, you can clean the converters by repeatedly filling and emptying them (using cool tap water) until they run clear. You can also rinse them out with a fine-pointed dental irrigator.
The aerometric filler (a more modern version of the old sleeve-filler system) was introduced by Parker on the 51 Demi pens in the late 1940s, and has been popular ever since. Both Parker and Sheaffer used aero fillers for their earlier cartridge converters, although both companies have moved on to newer types. Some Chinese pens use aerometric fillers or converters.
Most Parker aerometric pens (51s, 41s, etc.) have instructions stamped right onto the filler. If you don't have such instructions, these should work: Remove the cap and barrel to expose the filler. Squeeze the bar (or "pincher") to expel any remaining ink. Immerse the point of the pen in an inkwell (so that the snout is completely below the surface), and then squeeze and release the bar at least 5 or 6 times, waiting for a five count between each squeeze. Remove the pen from the inkwell, wipe it down, and replace the barrel.
To clean an aero filler, repeatedly fill it and empty it (using cool tap water) until the water runs clear. Being sac fillers at heart, aerometric pens can be cleaned out relatively completely and quickly.
The Vacumatic filler is a feature of Parker Vacumatics and 51s (and other selected models) during the 1930s and 40s. It was not directly copied by any other major makers, although at least one modern pen (my Ancora demonstrator) adapts much of the Vacumatic principle.
More than likely, if you have a Vacumatic, it will have a Vacumatic filler (don't laugh; I've seen at least one Vacumatic that came from Parker's Danish licensee producer with a standard button filler). If your 51 has a blind cap about one inch (25mm) long that unscrews to reveal an amber-colored translucent plunger, then it too is a Vacumatic filler.
There were actually three different variations of the Vacumatic system:
To fill a Vacumatic, remove the blind cap (release the lockdown if this is the system your pen has). Put the point in an inkwell. Tap the plunger button down smartly about 10 times; each tap draws in a small amount of ink, and the pen will stop taking ink when the level rises past the top of the breather tube. Before removing a lockdown pen from the ink, press in the plunger once more and give it a slight twist to lock it in place. Then, remove the pen from the inkwell and wipe it down.
If you're lucky enough to have a lightly-used Vac that has not been stained with ink, you should be able to see the ink level by holding the pen (point down) up to a strong light.
Like the Sheaffer touchdown, the Vacumatic filler will often seem to work but won't take in any ink. This is usually due to a rotted diaphragm; replacing these is a routine job for a pen tech but should not be attempted by a beginner.
The Vacumatic isn't my favorite filling system, frankly speaking, mainly because it is tough to empty out and clean. You just have to keep tapping away at the plunger to get rid of the ink a couple of drops at a time. Cleaning these pens entails filling them with water and emptying them out until they run clear. While later Vacs had removable screw-in sections, early ones did not, so it is difficult to speed up the process.